In his fascinating and thought-provoking book The Educated Mind, professor of education Kieran Egan tells the story of kids at a lemonade stand where a customer jokingly asked if they had any beer or scotch. The five-year-old proprietor went into the house and asked Mom “whether he could could have some beer and scotch for the stand. He emerged a minute of so later, shrugged, and told his siblings, ‘Mom killed that idea.'” His three and four-year-old siblings had no difficulty interpreting this sentence.
Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors, that such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older, and “younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.” We are amused by young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives. My grandchildrens’ lovely constructions passerports (passports) and glovins (gloves) come to mind—these are delightful reflections of their minds’ ability to conjure up melanges of ideas and words that express their reality.
We often assume that we get smarter as we get older. By “smarter” I mean our abilities are superior and the likelihood we’ll use them higher. While this is true in many respects, our demonstrated decline in metaphorical capacity means that we are less likely and less able to use metaphors as adults.
This is a loss for event education, as metaphor is one of the most powerful methods for extending learning. The philosopher Max Black said “it would be more illuminating…to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Metaphor then, Egan says, “becomes a key tool in aiding flexible, productive learning.” It “helps us to acquire knowledge about new domains, and also has the effect of restructuring our organization of knowledge.”
When I describe my recent experience of trying to get internet service restored at my home by comparing it to being stuck on an airplane for days waiting for it to take off without any announcements about what’s going on or when we might leave (if ever), or when my mentor Jerry Weinberg publishes a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process, we are harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]
I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education, as I find it hard to summon up useful metaphors for ideas I’m trying to get across. For this we can perhaps blame Plato and his successors who insisted that the “poetic” be eliminated from intellectual inquiry. Consequently, literacy education discourages our use of metaphor.
Some people seem to have a natural ability to dream up apt metaphors, and they are usually engaging and memorable presenters (great comedians frequently share this gift too.) Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Reagan’s “break down this wall” speeches obtain much of their power from metaphor.
How does all this this relate to event design? Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver‘s techniques for formulating meeting objectives and their Elementary Meetings model rely on the power of metaphor to create stakeholder buy-in for meeting objectives and design. And good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.
I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. Better events may well be the result.
Photo attribution: Flickr user adwriter